If you're willing to travel off the beaten path, Latin America has some stunning ecological wonders to offer. Get up close and personal with Mother Nature at these eco-friendly hot spots!
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Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina
While most of the world’s glaciers continue to melt, the Perito Moreno ice field in Southern Patagonia maintains its cool in the face of global warming. Credit the snow accumulation from the Andes Mountains. The White Giant, as the iceberg is known, gains at least eight feet a day even as it sheds sheets of ice into Lago Argentino. Listen for the thunderous roar.
What to pack: Weather-resistant shoes, extra socks, waterproof jacket, gloves and lip balm
Where to stay: Constructed with recycled materials to resemble an old railway station, Patagonia Rebelde Posada is a rustic 12-room boutique hotel in nearby town El Calafate, where most visitors to the glaciers stay. (About $110 per night for double occupancy, including breakfast; patagoniarebelde.com)
What to do: The star of the show at Los Glaciares National Park is without a doubt Perito Moreno. At three miles wide, 18 miles long and almost 2,300 feet deep, the glacier deserves a closer look. Outfitter Hielo & Aventura (hieloyaventura.com) provides guides, crampons and instruction to help you tackle its jagged blue surface. Sign up for the high-endurance Big Ice tour, a seven-hour trek into the center of the glacier, and follow the trail in a single file to avoid flooded crevasses and frozen lakes. If you can handle the low ceilings, venture into an underground ice cave for a different perspective. You’ll be rewarded with a glass of whiskey on the rocks—carved from Perito Moreno, of course—once you re-emerge.
When you’re done with your ice capades, see what life is like at a traditional Patagonian farmhouse. At El Galpón del Glaciar (estanciaalice.com.ar), a rustic homestead on the outskirts of town, you can learn to shear sheep and handle a horse like a gaucho amid the rural setting. After a day on the range, cap off your visit with a mouthwatering asado.
Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica
Home to more than 25 ecosystems and an abundance of wildlife, Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica is the ultimate exotic, lush and untamed destination. Plus, this remote rainforest just may be the most biologically diverse area on Earth.
What to pack: Rubber boots, high-top socks, walking stick, compass and flashlight
Where to stay: Find serenity at Lapa Ríos Ecolodge. Built on a 1,000-acre private nature reserve, the retreat has 16 private, thatched bungalows equipped with bamboo furnishings, solar-heated showers and biodegradable toiletries. There are no phones or TVs to distract from the sounds of the surrounding jungle. (Starting at $255 per person per night for double occupancy, including meals; laparios.com)
What to do: Corcovado National Park’s isolated, almost inaccessible location only adds to its mystique. To be among the few that make the trip, board a morning charter flight to the Sirena Biological Station in the heart of the jungle. Follow one of several well-marked trails along the coast with your naturalist guide for a chance to spot giant anteaters, scarlet macaws, roaming jaguars and hundreds of other animals. You’ll cross rivers and streams below a canopy of trees (more than 500 species) before landing on a secluded beach—a welcome respite from the intense heat and humidity, so break out the bikini. To really explore marine life, sail across the 80°F waters of the Golfo Dulce with Changing Tide Tours (changingtidetours.com). The protected bay is inhabited by humpback whales, manta rays, sea turtles and three species of dolphin. Snorkel the area’s coral reefs until sunset, when the bioluminescent waters begin to sparkle.
Atacama Desert, Chile
As the highest, driest desert on the planet, Chile’s 20-million-year-old Atacama feels like uncharted terrain. The 600-mile-long strip of land is punctuated with wind-sculpted dunes, salt basins and powerful geysers. When night falls, a blanket of stars lights up the famously clear sky, inspiring amateur astronomers to connect the shimmery dots.
What to pack: Binoculars, high-SPF sunblock, wide-brimmed hat, shades and refillable water bottle
Where to stay: Located in the town of San Pedro de Atacama, the family-owned Tierra Atacama is a romantic oasis with 34 rooms overlooking the 19,000-foot Licancabur Volcano to the east. Your stay includes guided excursions, three daily meals and an open bar stocked with delicious Chilean vino.
(About $900 per person, per night for double occupancy; tierraatacama.com)
What to do: Cycle across flat, occasionally sandy terrain to the Laguna Cejar, a turquoise salt-encrusted lagoon. The saline water, though bitterly cold, allows you to effortlessly float on the surface, while Andean flamingos fly above. When the sun begins to set, follow “surfers” to the Valle de la Muerte. The desolate landscape is made up of gigantic rock formations and 400-foot dunes that make for some thrilling descents if you dare strap on a sandboard and slide down.
Once acclimated to the 7,900-foot altitude—it usually takes a day or two—go even higher to the geothermic fields of the Tatio Geysers (elevation 14,000 feet). The fumaroles release plumes of steam at sunrise, the best time to visit. On the way back down, recharge in the Baños de Puritama, volcanic hot springs known for their healing properties.
Iguaçú Falls, Brazil
Think Niagara is grand? Then you haven’t seen the 275 independent cataracts that make up Iguaçú Falls on the Brazil-Argentine border. Formed over 100 million years ago from volcanic eruptions, the majestic cascades spill close to 400,000 gallons of water per second, creating rainbows that compete for attention. Beyond the billowing mist, you’ll find tropical rainforests sure to keep your mouth perpetually agape.
What to pack: Raincoat, swimsuit, waterproof backpack, small towel and mosquito repellant
Where to stay: Fall asleep to the sound of rushing water at the recently renovated Hotel das Cataratas, the only property within Brazil’s Iguaçú National Park. In the morning, you can take an educational walk in the forest with the hotel biologist before the park reopens—and the crowds return. (About $340 per night for double occupancy; hoteldascataratas.com)
What to do: The Brazilian side of the falls offers gorgeous panoramic vistas. For the full effect, follow the main trail along the Iguaçú River and keep a lookout for capuchin monkeys flittering among the palm trees. You’ll wind up at a platform overlooking the enormous Garganta do Diablo, a U-shaped canyon surrounded by a forceful flood of water made up of 14 cascades. To feel its powerful spray, embark on an inflatable raft and paddle down the river. A professional guide will help navigate any intermediate rapids so that you can take in the scenery. Back on land, venture outside the park to the privately run Parque Das Aves. Colorful parakeets, parrots, toucans and other rare South American birds inhabit the sanctuary. (The butterfly house alone is worth the trip.) You can also get your passport stamped and visit the other side of the falls in Argentina’s Parque Nacional Iguazú, where the drama is intensified by paths that lead right under the cataracts.